In This Issue
- Featured Story: Rise of the ‘nones’ driven by technology — or is it family values?
- Muslim conversions to Christianity growing, facing identity dilemmas
- Current Research: November 2015
- How many Muslim refugees will turn to Christianity in Germany?
- Caliphate low on Islamic State fighters’ priorities
- Islamic woman preachers used to spread the faith by Turkey’s religious officials
- Advocates for Buddhism as state religion in Thailand draws support and criticism
- Findings & Footnotes: November 2015
- On/File: November 2015
Featured Story: Rise of the ‘nones’ driven by technology — or is it family values?
As the rates of the non-affiliated (or “nones”) grow, researchers have been busy seeking the source of this disenchantment with religious institutions and why it seems most prevalent among young people. In a paper presented at the recent meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) in Newport Beach, Calif., Paul McClure of Baylor University looked at the role that technology, specifically social media, has on religious and spiritual beliefs and finds that the affect is significant. McClure notes that past research has found the rate of religious affiliation drops with increases in Internet use, but he focused closer in on the use of social media such as Facebook, and attitudes toward religious pluralism and syncretism. Based on an analysis of the National Study of Youth and Religion (waves one, three and four), McClure finds that users of social media are more inclined to condone religious syncretism, even among those whose religion forbids such mixing and matching of religious beliefs and practices. Those young adults whose parents are religiously involved and are themselves more active in their faith are more likely to disapprove of such syncretism. McClure speculates that social networking sites encourage a “tinkering” mindset. “On Facebook, there is no expectation that one’s “likes” and preferences be logically consistent and hidebound by tradition…the Facebook effect on religion is that all spiritual options become commodities and resources for which individuals can tailor to meet their individual needs,” he adds.
Another paper, presented at the SSSR meeting by Vern Bengtson, R.D. Hayward and Phillip Zuckerman, questions the role of social media in the rise of the nones and the related spiritual but not religious trend. The researchers argue that many young nones are not so much dropping out of faith communities or even rebelling against their parents’ faith as much as following a family trajectory of religious non-involvement. The researchers note that the nones are diverse; they could be seekers still looking for a congregation, atheists and agnostics, the religiously indifferent, or the “spiritual but not religious.” Using longitudinal data from 1970-2005, they find a sharp increase in non-affiliation by generation. The transmission of non-affiliation was found to be higher than the transmission of Catholics and Protestants in general, but equal to evangelicals. This transmission of none identity is carried out by non-religious grandparents and parents teaching and role-modeling secular values and beliefs. These values are often aligned with sacred texts, but they are non-theistic in nature, according to Bengtson, Hayward and Zuckerman.
Muslim conversions to Christianity growing, facing identity dilemmas
A “global census” of Muslims who have become Christians estimates that the largest numbers are found in Asia, followed by Africa and North America, and totaling nearly 10 million. The census was conducted by Duane Alexander Miller and Patrick Johnstone and is published in the current issue of The Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion (Vol. 11, No. 10). The authors acknowledge their figures are far from precise, especially because so many conversions in Muslim societies take place secretly for fear of punishment. Miller and Johnstone collected data from published sources and missionary reports, finding most of the converts among evangelicals but also among pockets of Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, as well as those converts claiming to be both Muslim and Christian. They note that in 1960, there were less than 200,000 Muslim converts to Christianity worldwide — a figure far less than the numbers estimated in most single continents. In Asia, there are 6,968,500 converts, followed by Africa (2,161,000), North America (493,000), the Arab world (483,000) and Europe (147,800). Iran seems to be the single country.
Believers who identify as both Muslim and Christian have long courted controversy and criticism among other Christians, and are subject to discrimination and persecution in the Islamic community. Being “social insiders,” that is, accepted by the Muslim community, while being “theological outsiders,” thus Christian in belief, is difficult to accomplish and not widely accepted even among Muslim converts to Christianity, writes Fred Farrokh in the current issue of the International Journal of Frontier Missiology (32.2). Farrokh cites his own and other recent research on the SITO phenomenon (social insider/theological outsider) among Christians from Muslim backgrounds and Muslims in several countries, including the U.S., and finds a wide range of responses on whether such dual-identification is possible or desirable.
Most of the findings (based on interviews) suggest that these Muslim-background Christians are orthodox in their belief in Christ, but show more variation regarding whether they accept Muhammad as a prophet or still attend mosques. Those who are strongly involved in “insider” networks are more favorable toward practicing their faith within mosques; one group has even withdrawn from the regular mosque and started their own Sufi-style mosque. In Farrokh’s own research of 20 Muslims and 20 Muslim-background Christians in the New York area, he found strong resistance to the SITO approach. It will not likely be tolerated by the Muslim community, which makes it “likely, at least in the near future, that Muslim background believers in Christ will continue to endure some forms of social ostracism.” An exception may be in places like Iran, where Muslims “are collectively beginning to reject the role of Muhammad as life’s ultimate guide. This may open a different door for those who become theological outsiders to remain social insiders.”
(Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, http://www.religjournal.com/articles; International Journal of Frontier Missiology, http://www.ijfm.org/)
Current Research: November 2015
01: While religious freedom has become a publicized and politicized issue among Christians, most denominations have not given it high priority, according to a recent study. In their recent book The Church and Religious Persecution (Calvin College Press), political scientists Kevin den Dulk and Robert Joustra find that nearly half of prominent American and Canadian denominations have issued statements on religious liberty and/or persecution. Yet beyond that, less than one-third of these church bodies have committed any substantial resources to the issue, such as appointing staff or establishing an office, and less than one-fifth provide liturgies, prayer guidance, adult education materials, or other means of raising awareness among its congregations and members. Evangelical denominations are more likely to commit resources to the issue of religious freedom than are mainline Protestants. In contrast, mainline bodies are more likely to focus on interfaith relations. Den Dulk and Joustra conclude that the low percentage of most denominations devoting resources to religious freedom may be because the issue does not provide measurable indicators of “success” in the way that missions or development efforts do.
02: Americans as a whole are growing less religious, but those who still consider themselves involved in a religion have maintained, and in some areas increased, their commitment to their faiths as in the past, according to the 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study by the Pew Research Center. Belief in God has decreased by about 3 percent, driven mainly by the rise in the number of “nones” who say they don’t believe in God. Even among the 98 percent of Christians who say they believe in God, fewer believe with absolute certainty (80 percent seven years ago compared to 76 percent in 2014). The study finds that affiliated adults read Scripture regularly and participate in small religious groups than seven years ago, and that 88 percent of religiously affiliated adults said they prayed daily, weekly or monthly (the same percentage from a 2007 study). There has also been an increase of 7 percent in those reporting a greater sense of “spiritual peace and well-being.” The study also finds growing acceptance of homosexuality, even from conservative groups such as Mormons, although they are now at the level of evangelicals for being least accepting.
(Pew Research Center, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/u-s-public-becoming-less-religious/)
03: A preliminary study of Asian and Pacific Islander Catholics in the U.S. finds that most attend multicultural parishes where their ethnicity comprises less than 80 percent of the parish. The study, presented at the recent meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in late October by researchers Jerry Z. Park, Tricia C. Bruce and Stephen M. Cherry, also finds that first generation Asian Catholics have weekly attendance patterns that are nearly as high as Asian evangelical Protestants (81 percent versus 73 percent), but then the attendance rates for the second and third generations move closer to the 30-40 percent range of whites and other ethnics. While most (eight in 10) Asian and Pacific Island Catholics speak a language other than English at home, 73 percent say they “never” feel uncomfortable because there is no one at the parish who shares their same ethnicity or race. But when Park, Bruce and Cherry conducted qualitative interviews they found a greater level of discomfort among these ethnic Catholics about American parish life. In such interviews, there was criticism that American parishes don’t hear the concerns of Asians and Pacific Islanders and are not welcoming. In the survey of these parishioners at Mass, more than eight in 10 agree at least “somewhat” that their parish should be more involved in providing assistance to immigrants.
04: Although they are not all megachurches by U.S. standards, Canada’s large churches are growing even in secular cities, especially those congregations that focus on serving children and youth, according to a new study. The study was conducted by Leadership Network in collaboration with several Canadian evangelical ministries and scholars. About one-in-eight active Protestant churches attend these large churches, which range from 1,000 to 10,000 in weekly attendance. Most of them (79 percent) have grown over the last five years, with 29 percent of the growth coming from new Christians (16 percent) and those renewed in the faith (13 percent). Slightly over half of these congregations have “birthed” or planted separate churches in the last 10 years, with another 16 percent considering it. Forty percent of respondents said their church was multisite, with one congregation meeting in two or more different locations. Of these churches, 62 percent are multiethnic meaning that there is not more than 80 percent of one race. More than half of the congregations cited youth and children’s ministry as a key factor in their growth.
05: Since the late 1990s, it had been claimed that the New Apostolic Church (NAC) had passed the threshold of 10 million members, and it had even been claimed to count more than 11 million at some point. However, revised data released on Oct. 22 “has arrived at a more realistic worldwide membership of approximately 8.8 million,” the denomination’s news service nac.today reports. For the past few years, there had already been several revised estimates downwards. But revisions had never been as massive as the one reported now. Previous revisions had invoked the fact that many deaths had remained unreported in countries where the Church had strongly expanded. This reason is mentioned again, but it is obvious that the explanation is not sufficient: a more general explanation provided is that “the systems in place to keep track of the membership figures could often not keep up with the rapid growth in membership.”
A German-speaking independent website reporting on the NAC, Glaubenskultur, suggests that other reasons played a role too. Some apostles and missionaries reportedly engaged in a “statistical war of the superlatives,” and some local leaders gladly obliged. For leaders in the West, facing stagnant or declining membership, such good news was welcomed. The revisions are massive for Asian statistics — instead of 1.45 million in 2005, slightly more than 600,000 in 2015, i.e. a reduction of 57 percent. Similar revisions regarding North and South America: from 438,000 to 225,000 (49 percent drop). Africa, where the largest number of members is found now, is less affected — less 11 percent, but still nearly 7.4 million. Moreover, all members are not necessarily active. In its anniversary brochure released for celebrating the 150 years of the Church in 2013, it had been stated that approximately one in three New Apostolic Christians regularly attends the divine services in Europe and Africa, while this number drops to one in five in the Americas, and one in 10 in Asia.
(n.a.c. today, http://nac.today/en/a/289643; Glaubenskultur – http://glaubenskultur.de/)
06: While there have been many reports of the revival of Islamic parties and politics since the Arab Spring in 2010 and 2011, Islamic political parties have actually not done well at the polls, write Charles Kurzman and Didem Turkoglu in the Journal of Democracy (Oct.). During and after the Arab Spring, elections did bring Islamic parties into office across North Africa, and many Muslim communities witnessed the growth of conservative Salafi movements. But since then, only a handful of these parties were able to win pluralities of the vote, with most receiving less than two percent of seats in parliament. Kurzman and Turkoglu write that the “Islamic political sector as a whole—that is, the proportion of seats won by all Islamic parties in each election—has remained virtually unchanged, with a median figure of 14 percent both before and since the Arab Spring.”
Most of the countries where Islamic parties did win a quarter or more of parliament seats, such as in Tunisia, Indonesia, Egypt, Morocco, and Turkey, did so in breakthrough elections after long periods of authoritarian rule. But the overall trend, both for parties and for the Islamic political sector as a whole, has curved downward in recent years. The researchers also look at Islamic party platforms and find that while support for democracy, often in an Islamic framework, has become more prominent since the Arab Spring, support for enacting shari’a law and support for “liberal rights” (such as for minority religious groups) has declined. Yet support for jihad has continued falling since well before 2000.
(Journal of Democracy, http://www.journalofdemocracy.org/)
How many Muslim refugees will turn to Christianity in Germany?
While there is no mass conversion of Muslim refugees to Christianity in Germany, a few congregations are experiencing significant growth following their missionary work with them, Deborah Berlioz reports from Berlin in the French Protestant daily Réforme (Oct. 29). A Lutheran parish belonging to a small German denomination linked to Lutheran Missouri Synod in Berlin now counts nearly 700 faithful of Afghan and Iranian Muslim backgrounds out of a total of 900 members. It started in 2011 and developed thanks to snowball effect: Rev. Gottfried Martens, who calls refugees “a blessing,” says that he has already baptized more than 150 people this year. Some had already developed an interest toward Christianity before leaving their home countries. When challenged about a possible opportunistic use of conversion for securing asylum—since an apostate Muslim cannot be sent back to Afghanistan and Iran—Rev. Martens answers that there is a serious, three-month long preparation, and that 90 percent of those whose asylum requests have been accepted continue to attend services.
Refugees also benefit from parish activities that help toward their integration into host society, e.g. language courses and youth work. A number of Christian congregations in Germany, from all denominations, have been involved in work for helping refugees, whatever their religious affiliation, and not linking this help with missionary work. According to Andreas Goetze, in charge of interreligious dialogue for the mainstream Protestant Church in the Berlin area, what is happening in Rev. Martens’ congregation is rather unusual: no mass conversion of refugees is reported in Germany at this time. According to Goetze, primarily Afghan and Iranian refugees of Shiite origin are attracted toward Christianity, due to some possible affinities of Shiite theology with Christianity (e.g. the potentially redeeming value of suffering). Most of those who convert prefer to attend parishes where they have an opportunity to interact with other people of similar background, Goetze adds.
(Réforme – http://www.reforme.net)
Caliphate low on Islamic State fighters’ priorities
While the fighters for the Islamic State may be devout Muslims, their motivations are far from being dictated by the radical movement and its dream of a worldwide caliphate, writes Lydia Wilson in The Nation magazine (Oct. 21). Wilson and her colleagues interviewed imprisoned ISIS fighters in Iraq and found that they were “woefully ignorant about Islam and have difficulty answering questions about Sharia law, militant jihad, and the caliphate.” She adds that “there is no question that these prisoners I am interviewing are committed; it’s just their own brand of Islam, only distantly related to that of the Islamic State. Similarly, Western fighters traveling to the Islamic State are also deeply committed, but it’s to their own idea of jihad rather than one based on sound theological arguments or even evidence from the Qur’an.”
Wilson cites Erin Saltman of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue as saying that there is now less emphasis on Islamic knowledge in the recruitment stage, and that there is a movement away from strict religious ideological training as a requirement in this process. “If we were looking at foreign fighter recruits to Afghanistan 10 or 20 years ago, there was intensive religious and theological training attached to recruitment. Nowadays we see that recruitment strategy has branched out to a much broader audience with many different pull factors…[such as] desires of adventure, romance, power, belonging, along with spiritual fulfillment,” Saltman says. In her interviews with these Iraqi prisoners more “rage against America and their own government. They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Queda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe. This is not radicalization to the ISIS way of life….”
(The Nation, http://www.thenation.com/article/what-i-discovered-from-interviewing-isis-prisoners/)
Islamic woman preachers used to spread the faith by Turkey’s religious officials
Female preachers (vaizeler, singular vaize) are being employed by the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), not merely as providers of social assistance and support but “most of all as spiritual guides to whom women can share problems and questions,” says the past president of the Diyanet in an article in Turkish Studies (Sept.). The article, by Chiara Maritato (University of Turin), sheds light on the type of work vaizeler are engaged in but also the way into which the current Turkish State is using the apparatus of the Diyanet, not merely for controlling the religious field (as it had been envisioned by the former governments with strong secular leanings), but for propagating the religious message. A growing number of vaizeler have been hired and play a crucial role as religious experts for connecting with the female population. For instance, since 2012, they run a phone service for providing answers to family concerns and personal questions. Vaizeler have existed in Turkey for 50 years. Female religious specialists have been part of the Diyanet’s workforce since 1997. The coming to power of the Justice and Development Party after the 2002 elections has led to the hiring of highly educated women by the Diyanet. A directive issued the same year states how they must spend their time giving sermons, leading Quran’s exegesis lesson and seminars, and providing counseling. They are considered as full-fledged religious professionals, with their qualifications tested and certified through national examinations.
Female preachers earn legitimacy and authority through their high level of religious expertise. They are permitted to enter prisons, orphanages, shelters, student dormitories and hospitals. Like their male counterparts, they are sent abroad to educate expatriates on religious issues. They are involved in various projects outside of mosques or attend academic conferences. “At the local level, the majority of seminars and projects for women and families address marriage, divorce, motherhood, childcare and disability,” Maritato writes. She adds that this is part of a wider call for increased female participation and engagement in religious activities, while efforts are also being made for improving facilities for women in Turkish mosques (otherwise mostly attended by males). The author sees all those developments as part of a State-sponsored (re)definition of female religiosity and religious engagement.
(Turkish Studies – http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ftur)
Advocates for Buddhism as state religion in Thailand draws support and criticism
Several groups are currently pushing for Buddhism to become state religion in Thailand, writes Nanchanok Wongsamuth in Bangkok Post (Oct. 25). A previous attempt had failed during military rule in 2007; the constitution adopted at that time only required the State to patronize and protect Buddhism. Members of a committee to promote Buddhism as state religion complain that lack of interest by the government allegedly resulted “in a decline in the religion.” Supporters of the move seem not merely to follow a political agenda, but a reformist one as well. For instance, they would like the State to help purify Buddhism from external accretions (e.g. Hindu statues in Buddhist temples) and to prevent the use of religion for commercial purposes.
A petition has been circulated in most provinces of Thailand and is expected by its promoters to attract much more than the 10,000 signatures required for proposing a draft bill. Not all Buddhists are pleased, however. Interviewed by Bangkok Post, a Buddhist scholar warned that an increase in Buddhism’s role would turn Thailand into a semi-religious State and lead to infringements upon freedoms and rights. Groups striving to ensure Buddhist supremacy as well as to advocate other Buddhist causes—sometimes clashing with other religious groups—have become increasingly active in recent decades in several Buddhist-majority countries, such as Burma or Sri Lanka.
(Bankok Post, http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/general/741924/push-to-make-buddhism-state-religion)
Findings & Footnotes: November 2015
01: A movement of scientists and environmental thinkers and activists embracing evolution as a kind of secular religion comes under scrutiny and critique in the current issue of the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture (9.2). Such thinkers and scientists as Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson have charged that the traditional religious accounts and perspectives on the universe are no longer useful as an environmental ethic and have called for a scientific and evolutionary “mythos” to take their place. In the lead article Lisa Sideris looks specifically at the philosophers gathered under the “New Genesis” movement, such as Thomas Berry, Ursula Goodenough, and Brian Swimme, who have been the most active in pushing for this perspective in educational circles and the media. Sideris questions whether their views of traditional religions as being detrimental toward the environment and the elevation of the myth of a universal “sacred science” can provide the motivation and inspiration for environmental activism. Other contributors, such as scientist and theologian Holmes Rolston, question both the post-modernist approach of Sideris and the scientism of some of the more atheistic thinkers such as Wilson and Dawkins. For more information on this issue, visit: http://www.religionandnature.com/journal/
02: The current issue of Religion, State and Society (43:3) is devoted to the state of Orthodox Christianity, both in Russia and in Eastern and Western Europe. The lead article by sociologist Victor Roudometof looks at how Orthodox churches are becoming more autonomous and “de-territorialized” in countries throughout Europe, especially as migrants are arriving in Western countries from the historical Eastern heartlands of the faith. These immigrants form connections to new local as well as global networks, challenging the traditional conception of diaspora churches linked to a “mother church.” Other articles look at the specific Orthodox situation in countries, such as Italy, France and England, noting how their church-state policies have shaped church life. In contrast, another article notes how the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church is attempting to “Russify” Orthodoxy in Europe, making plans to construct large Orthodox churches for parishes of the Patriarchate in almost all major European capitals. For more information on this issue, visit: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/crss20/current
03: Korean missionaries in America sounds quite like oxymoron given the history that Korean Christians were proselytized, mostly by American missionaries, in the early 19th century. However, if we look at the development of Korean Christianity after the 19th century, Korean Christians sending Christian missionaries to America, often called “reverse mission,” may not seem so contradictory. For example, Yoûido Church, the largest evangelical church in the world with a quarter of a million members, is located in Seoul, South Korea. Furthermore, there is no mystery about the declining membership of Christianity in the West, even in the United States. In Rebecca Kim’s The Spirit Moves West (Oxford University Press, $24.95), she used four years of interviews, participant observation, and surveys of South Korea’s largest nondenominational agency to understand reverse missions. The main focus of her book is on the study of a group called University Bible Fellowship (UBF). The group was founded in 1961, and by 1998 UBF was the largest missionary-sending organization in Korea.
Kim documents UBF’s intense devotional practices (seven separate Sunday services, daybreak prayers). It is also hierarchically structured—a heavily pastor-centered and authoritarian culture. UBF missionaries come to America as students, professionals (medical doctors) and as ordinary immigrants. Interestingly, most of them don’t have a good command of English. However, they target mainly “white Americans” on college campuses armed with a “soldier spirit” and a “theology of sacrifice.” That they have achieved even a limited success in proselytizing whites, Kim attributes to their extraordinary dedication to their mission, even though many gave them the cold shoulder. After one of the founders of UBF, Samuel Lee, died, the organization went through a major reform. UBF is now more democratic, less conservative, and consists largely of second generation Korean Americans. Without any doubt, this is a fascinating study done by a Korean America scholar very familiar with the hierarchical, conservative, and fervent nature of Korean Christian missionary groups. – By K.T. Chun, a New Jersey-based sociologist and writer.
04: The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in South Africa (Cambridge University Press, $99) by Ilana van Wyk, provides a riveting account of how this burgeoning Brazilian church has been transplanted to another culture and has attracted a large following. Since the early 1990s, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) has aggressively evangelized Africans, and has about one million members just in South Africa. While the church’s growth in South Africa has received little attention, its teachings and practices on deliverance (often targeted to those suffering from AIDS), and prosperity have drawn wide publicity from the press. Though the book is mainly a study of one branch of the UCKG in South Africa, Van Wyk tries to unravel the puzzle of why this Pentecostal denomination is growing so fast, since it is so unlike other African churches. It is strangely “unsocial”—there are few prayer meetings, small groups, or Bible studies in the church, and most attendees don’t associate with fellow participants in the massive but non-ecstatic services that mainly consist of lurid and sometimes sexually explicit testimonies of how members overcame demonic possession and influence.
The Bible holds little importance for the UCKG and it has a reputation for demanding money from and bullying impoverished members (even advising them not to engage in charity but to give money only to the church) and running churches like businesses. But the anthropologist—who makes no secret of her dislike, even “loathing,” of the church’s aggressive and harsh approach—argues that it is the church’s “no-place” quality (as the book’s subtitle says, “A church of strangers”) that enables members to be “overcomers” and to develop the “technologies” to battle against demons that undermine their personal and families’ prosperity and happiness. These technologies of deliverance are very similar to local religious practices regarding evil spirits and witchcraft that revolve around contractual obligations to God—one factor in the church’s rapid growth among the poor in South Africa.
05: In the new anthology Pastures of Plenty: Tracing Religio-Scapes of Prosperity Gospel in Africa and Beyond (Peter Lang, $85.95), edited by Andreas Heuser, a team of scholars provide an interesting investigation of “health and wealth” teachings and practices in much of the developing world, with some forays into North America and Europe. While the Americans may have pioneered in prosperity theology, the field was taken over by African Pentecostals who have mixed these teachings and practices with political ambition and even calls for social justice and economic growth. The contributors show that the prosperity gospel has influenced a wide range of non-Pentecostal denominations and even (more unexpectedly) non-Christian religions, most notably Islam. This can be seen in chapters on competition between prosperity proponents in African indigenous, Pentecostal, and Islamic religions in Ghana, and how Sufi and Salafi Muslims have adapted prosperity teachings in their religious rhetoric. The only non-African-oriented chapter is one on the perceived failure of prosperity teachings in the Philippines, which led to a movement of “kingdom-minded” activist preachers stressing political engagement, whose own failure at the polls sent many pastors back to holiness theology and concentrating on personal piety.
On/File: November 2015
01: A recent effort known as the Jewish Community Legacy Project (JCLP) helps disappearing Jewish communities plan on what assets they will leave behind. In a place such as Pocahontas, Va., both the general and Jewish population declined as coal mining diminished. After the Jewish community there disappeared, the community of nearby Bluefield took over responsibility for the Pocahontas cemetery. But now, the community in Bluefield is heading toward extinction, with only 20 families left, no full-time rabbi since five years ago and an average age of 60. For facing such cases, a former head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta launched the JCLP after discovering in 2007 that there were some 150 communities across the US with little hope to survive as congregations. In partnership with several Jewish bodies (Union for Reform Judaism, United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism and Jewish Federations of North America), the project helps such communities to perpetuate their legacy and arrange for the disbursement of assets once they cease to exist—including the maintenance of cemeteries where there is one. Historic records of congregations also need to be preserved. The organization acts as an independent, outside consultancy free-of-charge to the communities. The process usually takes one to two years. While starting as something emotional, it proves comforting once congregations realize that they will thus be able to leave something behind. Beside the maintenance of cemeteries or various institutions, congregations that close sometimes allocate their funds to charitable work, scholarships for students or supporting small, but still viable congregations. (Source: Jerusalem Report, Nov. 2; Jewish Community Legacy Project – http://www.jclproject.org/)
02: SHARIASource is an ambitious project that seeks to document and analyze issues relating to Islamic law, or shari’a in all its complexity and volume. Based at Australia Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia and headed by sociologist Bryan Turner and legal scholar Joshua Roose, SHARIASource will focus on shari’a rulings and developments in Southeast Asia. One of the main challenges in documenting shari’a laws are not only understanding the nuances of these cases in different languages but the sheer volume of rulings; in Indonesia alone, 388 religious courts have ruled on 884,176 cases (the majority being divorce cases). To study such a vast output, the project has randomly selected cases with the intent of obtaining a sample reflective of a wide variety of sources. Eventually, the organization hopes to choose a specific period of time and provide a survey from which broader, scientifically valid conclusions can be drawn about the practice of Islamic law in specific courts.
From a pilot study of 800 shari’a cases, the project has offered some early conclusions and findings. In Australia, for instance, they find that “judges will do almost anything to avoid engaging with shari’a, and are very careful in couching their rulings in formal legal terminology.” Yet these rulings are likely to be well received by the wider Muslim community. In the case of Indonesia, the project has looked at the quality of religious court judgments and found “inconsistencies in the legal reasoning of court judges against Indionesia’s national legislation on Marriage and Islamic teachings.” (Source: SHARIASource presentation at the meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion; for more information, contact: Joshua.Roose@acu.edu.au)
03: The Laypersons Sermon, or “Preek van de Leek” in Dutch, is an experiment where secular laypeople are coached by theologians to deliver sermons in Protestant churches in the Netherlands. In its five years of operation, the project has proliferated into numerous local experiments and has been praised as a way to involve secular people, including intellectuals and opinion makers, in congregational life. These sermons are delivered on a Sunday afternoon in the heart of Amsterdam within the format of a Protestant liturgy. A theological coach, usually a minister but they also included journalists, meets with the speaker three times, presenting them with a biblical text and basic catechesis, to help them increase their religious literacy. So far, there have been 25 services and sermons. The project is strongly influenced by Dutch Reformed missional theology that stresses learning from those outside the church. A content analysis of the sermons shows hardly any reference to Christ and only vague references to God, often viewed as another name for social justice, tolerance or love. But the Laypersons’ Sermons have attracted non-believers to church and attracted the attention of the secular media. (Source: Ecclesial Practices, 2, 2015)